Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene A Sense of Adventure

Jazzing up jazz.

By Ron Wynn

APRIL 6, 1998:  Despite the current obsession in jazz with issues of repertory and tradition, not every musician ignores contemporary movements; plenty of players are still committed to developing their own forward-looking styles. Saxophonist David Murray and cornetist/guitarist Olu Dara are among a sizable, if underpublicized, group whose work incorporates multiple idioms and whose sound manages to reflect both vintage and current influences.

Murray and Dara emerged during the '70s, when the initially intriguing sounds of jazz-rock quickly evolved into turgid, corporate-dominated fusion; thus, they received little attention for their more experimental, more exciting material. And since neither musician hopped on the "young lions" bandwagon during the early '80s, both found their exposure increasingly limited to a small, though exuberant, group of fans. Fortunately, they've never stopped recording or performing, and the last few months have seen both men resurfacing with projects that rank as the most stimulating of the decade.

Hailing from the West Coast, Murray played saxophone in gospel and soul bands as a teenager; by age 14, his authoritative, striking tone and swaggering, forceful solo sound had earned him the nickname "King David." He was prematurely typed as an "energy" player during the mid-'70s because of his fondness for the shrieking effects and screaming intensity of such players as Albert Ayler, who inspired his best-known composition, "Flowers for Albert," in 1976. That same year, he was a cofounder of the Modern Saxophone Quartet with Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, and Hamiett Blueitt. In the years since, Murray has made albums with big bands, organ trios, octets, and quartets, and he has done sideman stints with everyone from Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition to Henry Threadgill's Air. Despite the fact that he's still only in his early 40s, he has recorded enough albums as a leader to have one of the biggest catalogs in recent jazz history.

His latest release, Fo Deux Revue (Justin Time), brilliantly blends explosive improvisations and spry, danceable rhythms with African, Afro-Latin, and Caribbean elements. The result is a sassy, unpredictable stew that places adventurous technique underneath layers of hypnotic vocals and frenetic percussion. The session was recorded two years ago, when Murray and his core band of bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma (an Ornette Coleman "harmolodic" alumnus), drummer Darryl Burgee, and keyboardist Robert Irving III visited Dakar, Senegal, for a recording/performing summit with African and African-American musicians. The stellar guest list includes vocalist Harret Maal (brother of international singing star Baabal Maal), rappers Positive Black Soul, and the Dieul Dieul band.

Although the instrumentals "Blue Muse" and "Evidence" feature Murray's powerful tenor sax lines and Tacuma's thumping bass support, "One World Family" and "Chant Africain" are the date highlights. The former has a structure somewhat similar to Murray's 1978 work "3D Family," but it offers more jutting rhythms, plus a sizzling vocal by Maal. "Chant Africain" seamlessy links reggae, African beats, looping funk, and Murray's swing-era sax and clarinet, while "Village Urbana" and "Abdoul Aziz Sy" are red-hot workout pieces in which Irving demonstrates a facility and harmonic boldness not previously heard on record.

Positive Black Soul's contribution is erratic; the rappers' well-intentioned discourses on injustice and cultural unity walk the line between babble and agitprop, while their rhyming skills won't cause hip-hoppers on either coast to lose any sleep. Still, the proceedings don't completely degenerate during their dialogues--a tribute to Murray and company's ability to keep everything flowing effectively. All in all, listeners disappointed at the lack of successful African/jazz collaborations have reason to celebrate. Fo Deux Revue is one of the best.

Unlike Murray, Dara had never stepped out as a leader until the release last month of his superb In the World: From Natchez to New York (Atlantic). But having emerged from St. Louis and the bustling Midwestern/Southeastern scene, his background is quite fertile. Early on, his preference for cornet rather than trumpet, coupled with his fondness for a wide array of musical styles, quickly gave his playing a distinct personal stamp. During his tenure with such bands as BAG (Black Artists Group of St. Louis), Oliver Lake's Jump Up, and even a stint with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Dara has filtered through his playing and writing everything from rags to funk. He tends to eschew lengthy, bristling solos in favor of crisp, crackling dialogues and muted, engaging licks.

In the World: From Natchez to New York demonstrates that it's still possible to find fresh ways of playing the blues and traditional New Orleans jazz. The album collects material that Dara has been performing live recently in New York clubs, and it spotlights a streamlined band with top performers, among them guitarist Kwatei Jones-Quartey, organist Rudy Herbert, bassist Alonzo Gardner, and drummer Greg Bandy. Dara's tart, frequently humorous cornet lines are augmented by his resourceful and evocative guitar work. Instead of attempting dazzling fills or distorted riffs, he plays clean, short, memorable lines, answering his cutting or comic vocals with an at times mournful or menacing undertone.

"Okra," "Your Lips," and "Harlem Country Girl" are updated Delta blues, but Dara is careful never to step over the line that separates irony from pathos. "Zora," "Young Mama," and "Bubber" contain sensational cornet solos, with "Bubber" in particular presenting vivid lines, jagged melodies, and simply beautiful passages that position Dara as a worthy successor to Duke Ellington's first great trumpeter, Bubber Miley. Vocalist Mayanne Lee contributes wordless vamps and cutting support on "Bubber," while Dara and Melba Joyce's dueling on "Zora" rekindles memories of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald's exchanges on "Mack the Knife."

If contemporary urban radio were truly hip, programmers would have already added the single "Jungle Jay," featuring guest performer Nas. The rapper's lyrics here indulge none of the unnecessary misogyny and gun worship that sometimes litter his own albums, and his gritty release proves a perfect match to Dara's ribald cornet licks. Actually, this album could fit into a variety of radio formats: There's certainly enough blues edge and jazz flavor for mainstream stations, while smooth-jazzers would be at home with the reggae and soca underpinning of songs like "Natchez Shopping Blues." Even Americana outlets might find something valuable in numbers like "Young Mama" or "Kiane," the lullaby that concludes the proceedings.

There's nothing wrong with expertly played hard bop or updated swing and blues, but it's great to hear alternative directions for jazz and improvisational music. David Murray and Olu Dara are among those blazing different trails, and their work merits high praise and close scrutiny--not just by jazz lovers, but by anyone interested in adventurous and ambitious music.

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